How to get a smooth painted finish

By Pinktoesandpowertools | Woodworking Tutorials

Have you ever been frustrated by brush and roller marks on your finished woodworking project?  I recently received an email from Dustin, a reader who has this exact problem:

I think you should do a post on how to do smooth finishes for painting. I’ve tried to do it on large surfaces but have failed leaving lots of roller or brush marks. Had to sand most of it down but the end result has not been as smooth as yours. Any suggestions?

Thanks for the post suggestion, Dustin!  By the way, I love to get reader suggestions for future posts.  If you have a DIY or woodworking problem, I’d love to hear from you!  My contact form is in the header.

Here is how to get a smooth painted finish without a sprayer.

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Start with sanding

I start by sanding down everything with 220 grit sandpaper (this isn’t 3M like in the picture, but the price is better than the 3M option–note that it is 5 not 25 sheets).  I use my Dewalt electric finish sander if it is a large amount of flat surface.

Dewalt finish sander to prep large areas for a smooth painted finish

Or a sanding sponge if the area is more detailed and smaller.


Sanding block for a smooth painted finish

Once the wood feels really smooth, I remove all the dust with the brush attachment on my vacuum and a rag.  If you really want a high-end smooth finish, you can’t skimp on any of the sanding steps!  Eventually it will take much less sanding between coats, but at this point, you need to spend a little bit of time making sure it’s nice and smooth.

Prime corners and small edges with a foam brush

I use a no VOC primer (I’ve always bought low and no-voc paint products, even back when they had to be special ordered because they weren’t popular yet) and a foam brush.  I use the plastic ones in the picture if I have to, but I prefer the wood handle ones in the link.  I find that they hold up better–the foam heads seem to stay attached tighter to the handle on the wooden handle option rather than the plastic.  If it’s a small project, use the cheaper plastic, but for a larger project I’d splurge on the wooden handles.

Foam brushes for primer coat

I use the smaller 1″ brush and prime the areas I can’t reach with the foam roller that comes next.  I do find that I have problems with getting enough paint in the corners and edges with the foam brush.  To fix that I do two coats at this point, before I roll it.  One coat, dry (I don’t wait the entire recommended time–just until it feels really dry since it’s a really thin coat), and then a second coat.

Priming with a foam brush to get a smooth painted finish


Prime large, open, and flat areas with the foam roller

This is a 4″ foam roller and handle.  The link is to the brand I actually have, but I think any brand should work.  As you can see, this has seen a lot of projects!  I love this roller.

Foam roller used for smooth painted finish

It takes a little bit of experience to get the hang of how much paint to put on with the roller.  Bare wood soaks up primer quite a bit, so you can be more generous at this point.  What you don’t want is so much paint that no matter how lightly you roll across the surface, you have an edge mark from the roller.  You should be able to roll over the whole surface on your final roll, with no pressure at all on the roller, and get a smooth look with no edges.  I use a plastic/foam plate as a way to distribute the paint on the roller–I dip the roller into the paint can and then roll it on the plate to get it even on the roller and to get some of the paint off the roller as well.

Now you have to make sure you didn’t roll any paint onto the adjacent edges of the part you just rolled.  I run my finger on those edges to make sure there isn’t a paint lip.  Sometimes I will use my really dry roller on those edges instead of my finger, but you have to be careful that you don’t make a lip of paint on the edge that you just rolled.

You can see how this could go on and on.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to get a smooth painted finish without a sprayer

Let the primer dry for the recommended amount of time on the can.

Sand again, this time with 320 grit sandpaper

Then you’ll get out your 320 grit sanding sponge and lightly go over the entire part you primed.  I used very light circular motions (you can do this because you are painting it–if you were staining you would need to follow the grain when you sand) until it is smooth to the touch.  The reason the wood feels really rough again is that the primer is water-based (if you used water based) and it raises the grain of the wood.  Each coat will require less sanding to get smooth again as you go along.

Also, if your sanding sponge wears out over time, you don’t have to replace it.  I simply buy sheets of sandpaper, cut them into fourths, and wrap each fourth around a sanding sponge.  I do like using the sanding sponge as a base because it allows a light touch and I find I can get into the corners that I need to easier.

Prime everything again, just like before

Now everything I’ve painted so far has had a slightly tinted white finish coat, so I’ve used 2 coats of primer and one coat of my final color.  If you are not using white, then you have to decide if one coat of primer is enough and then do more than one coat of your finish color.  Right now, I do another coat of primer exactly like the first.

Dry for recommended time. Sand with 320 grit.  Remove dust with rag.

Finish coat in your chosen color

Then I do a coat of my finish color.  I generally use tinted paint in a satin finish.

I apply this exactly the same as the primer coats.  Foam brush for small edges and corners.  Foam roller where it fits.  Dry.  Sand with 320 grit.  Remove dust with a rag.

Topcoat with a polycrylic

Now some people out there in blogland are painting their furniture with a semi-gloss finish to their paint and calling it done.  I might try that out someday, but for what I have done so far, I now apply 3 coats of General Finishes High Performance Topcoat in a satin finish.  The finish is incredibly smooth and your hand just glides over the final product.  It also feels more durable to me.  Three coats feels like an eternity at this point–you just want to be done with the project!   But all I have to do is go and feel the finish on a piece I’ve already done and it becomes worth the extra time commitment.

I’ve also used a water-based Minwax Polycrylic water-based finish that I was happy with.  The VOC content is similar in both and I think they both self-level pretty well to eliminate any brush marks.  I use a foam brush like I used for the primer coat for the topcoat as well.  What you have to watch here are the tiny lint pieces that inevitably show up in the finish if your paint color is light like the white that I use.  I’ve found that using a different brush for each coat of topcoat helps–although I really hate the disposable nature of this practice.  I even tried washing out the brush between topcoats and that didn’t help any.

Get this stuff on there and get out.  You don’t want to play around with it much after you apply it–it will self-level pretty good–just don’t get blobs on there so that it runs.  Three thinner coats will work great.  You will not use the roller for this either–just the foam brush.  Make sure you don’t shake your topcoat can, just stir with a paint stick.  This stuff dries so quickly that the bubbles you make by shaking it will end up drying in your finish.  Sand with 320 grit between the layers, but not on your final layer.

And this is what you should end up with:

Smooth painted finish using a foam roller brush

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You might want to check out a few of my other tips + tricks posts for painting!

How to store your leftover paint


Other miscellaneous tips:

* Sandra from Sawdust and Paperscraps had this fantastic tip on her site:  store your foam rollers right in the paint you are using them for.  That way they are always at hand and you aren’t constantly buying more.  I’ve had mine in the cans and jars for a year now and they still work great!

*Invest in some of these Painter’s Pyramids.  I LOVE THESE THINGS!! They are inexpensive and they speed up the painting process by allowing you to paint opposite sides quicker. Do know that they will leave small marks in fresh paint that hasn’t been sufficiently cured, but by being strategic and making sure the back side is painted first and will get the marks, you can get around that problem!  And buy two packs.  You’ll thank me. Seriously.

Painter's pyramids




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